Reviewed by Herb Levy

LINCOLN (PSC Games/Worthington Games, 2 players, ages 14 and up, 60-120 minutes; $45)


One of the most popular historical themes for games is the American Civil War. This conflict split the United States of America in two with the Union forces of the North thrust into conflict with the newly formed Confederate States of America in the South. The latest game to explore this tumultuous time is from prolific designer Martin Wallace who titles the game after the leader who guided the US during the war: Lincoln.

This is a two player game where one player guides the forces of the Union and the other, the Confederacy. The large board shows the eastern part of the United States with locations (blue for those controlled by the Union and beige rather than traditional gray for the Confederacy) split into two halves. No hexes here as the game uses a “point by point” approach with areas linked by rail lines. Some of these areas display Victory Point values. In addition, two tracks follow the progress of the Union blockade of the South’s ports and European support for the Confederacy. Military forces come in strengths of 1, 2 and 3 with the Union player starting with a 3 strength army in Washington, DC and 2 strength armies in Harper’s Ferry, Kentucky and Cairo while the South has a 3 strength army in Manassas, 2 strength armies in Front Royal, Savannah and New Orleans and a 1 strength army in Nashville, Fort Henry & Donelson and Fort Monroe. The central focus of the game, as in Wallace’s A Few Acres of Snow (Fall 2011 GA Report), is the cards for this is a card driven game where each side has their own decks which will allow them to command their respective forces. 

The Union player starts the game and always has a hand size of 6 cards; Confederate hand size begins at 5 and may lessen as the game progresses based on the success of the Union’s naval blockade. Each deck has cards labelled I and II; these cards are placed aside and won’t enter the decks until each player’s deck needs to be reshuffled the first and second times.

Cards have a distinct top and bottom, allowing for multiple possible uses. Each turn, a player may use them to perform two actions. These actions include deploying additional forces (which, if a strength of more than 1, requires the discarding of 1 or more cards into that player’s discard pile in addition to the removal – that is, out of the game –  of the card that provides that unit), movement of units already on the board, a special ability (such as a “Cavalry Raid”), advancing the Europe or Blockade marker etc.  A card may be used for its top or bottom abilities but never both. In the bottom part of the card, many show a Leadership symbol which comes into play when there is combat. 

If a player’s turn begins with opposing forces in the same area, combat may be triggered as one of the active player’s actions but, if an opposing unit enters a space occupied by the enemy, that is no longer an option. Combat automatically occurs. 

When faced with an attacker, the forces under attack always have the option to withdraw, retreating either to the other half of that particular location if the defender had controlled the entire area or, if only controlling one half of that location, to a different, uncontested, connecting area. Otherwise, we have a battle!

Combat is conducted in a very straightforward way. To the strength of the units in the contested area, each player MAY play 1 card with a Leadership value face down. Those cards are simultaneously revealed and those values added to the strengths of the units. High value wins. (Ties go to the defender.) Of course, there are possible modifiers including the presence of a fort (building a fort is an option available to the Confederate player only which adds 3 to a defender’s strength) and defensive bonuses provided by rail lines (found on the board spaces). But, win or lose, players pay a price for combat. The winning side loses HALF of its markers (NOT half of its strength) rounded down; the losing side loses HALF rounded up. This is what makes the weaker 1 combat units more valuable beyond their intrinsic strength as it keeps your more powerful 2 and 3 combat units in play. If the winning forces completely occupy an area that belonged to the opposition, one of their control markers are placed there to mark ownership. Defeated surviving units if belonging to the defender must retreat to a connected area; if the attacker has been repelled, surviving units return to the area from which the attacked was launched. Furthermore, the Europe track marker is moved in favor of the winning player spaces equal to the number of counters LOST by the losing player.  If the Confederate player manages to control a Union location, the market moves an additional space on that track in favor of the Confederate player, an incentive for the Southern player to be a bit more aggressive. (Of course, if the Confederates subsequently fail to hold that area, that space on the track shifts back towards the Union player.)

When the Union player’s deck runs out and discards need to be reshuffled to make a new deck, the first scoring occurs. The Union player MUST have accumulated at least 2 Victory Points. If not, it is an immediate Confederate win. Similarly, when the second Union deck shuffle is due, the Union player must have 5  VPs. Otherwise, once again, it is a Confederate win. When the Union deck is exhausted for the third time, the Union player checks his VP totals. If he has amassed 12 or more, it is a Union victory. Anything else and victory goes to the Confederacy. But there are other paths to the win as well. 

As in real life, the Confederacy needs aid from Europe. If the Europe track makes it all the way to his end, that is a victory for the CSA. Alternatively, if the Confederate player manages to capture and hold Washington at the end of the Union player’s turn, that is an automatic win! Similarly, the Union can claim victory if he/she manages to control both Richmond AND Vicksburg at the end of the Confederate player’s turn. 

At first glance, the Union player should have no trouble scoring a measly 2 (!) points at the first scoring check and only 5 the second time around. Actually, those points do not come easily if for no other reason than the superior (i.e. higher value) Leadership of the Confederacy which can turn the tide in battle. Despite the name, President Abraham Lincoln does not make an appearance here; the inner workings of his leadership are replaced by those of the Union player! 

The game lasts, at most, three cycles through the Union deck. Deploying more powerful troops and applying pressure through the blockade requires the discarding of cards thereby shrinking the Union player’s deck, making those scoring checks come up that much quicker. This game mechanism puts a considerable amount of pressure on the Union player. For the Union to win, offense is key. Use of the naval blockade, both to earn points AND reduce the hand size of the Confederacy, is a strategy that should not be ignored but pounding the CSA forces through relentless battle needs to be undertaken as well. Transporting Union troops to Southern ports can help open up a two pronged attack (from top AND bottom) for the North which means the South must not neglect deploying forces to those areas to defend against that possibility. 

From a graphic perspective, Lincoln has both good and bad points.  The cards are of good quality and the counters are thick and easily readable. (It’s interesting to note that Confederate control counters display the national flag of the Confederacy rather than the more controversial “Stars & Bars”.) Locations, so critical to play, have their names printed INSIDE the spaces. Once counters fill these areas, it is impossible to identify them! Even more surprising is that area names are only printed once facing in one direction rather than printed twice so BOTH players, sitting at opposite ends of the board, can readily see them! Washington and Richmond, both key targets, are easy to spot with their colorful spaces but Vicksburg, potentially critical for a Union victory, is not. Why wasn’t there some sort of color differentiation used for it?

Lincoln may not be a game for hard core grognards who enjoy hex filled maps and rolling results on a Critical Results Table. It is more stylized and less simulation in its handling of the Civil War. As such, it provides some challenging hand management decisions coupled with a “working against a ticking clock” feeling, particularly for the Union player as his/her deck shrinks while scoring requirements loom. Because of this, I’m thinkin’ Lincoln is a solid two player game capturing the flavor of the war that threatened to tear the United States asunder.  – – – – – Herb Levy

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